By Bryn Glover
The COP26 conference in Glasgow, which was scheduled to take place in mid-November, has now been postponed until 2021 as governments around the world struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19. Indeed the conference centre that was set to host the UN climate talks has been converted into a hospital for coronavirus patients in the west of Scotland. Meanwhile new policy initiatives on fighting climate change have been put on hold. Quite rightly, world leaders can only focus on one crisis at the moment, and the next priority for most governments will probably be economic recovery. However, it is vital that we don’t allow the pandemic to overshadow environmental concerns.
Those world leaders, including Boris Johnson, who are still toeing the line that all will be well if humanity achieves net-zero carbon by the year 2050 would do well to study a report from the University of Leeds. Its lead author Simon Lewis describes his team’s findings as the ‘most worrying paper’ he has written. Using new estimates that take account, among other factors, of accelerated deforestation, Lewis estimates that the great rainforests of the world could become net emitters of CO2 after 2035. Disrupted forests dry out and emit the gas, and their mono-crop replacements such as oil-palms, absorb a tiny fraction of that taken up by natural trees.
World Weather Attribution (WWA) is an international climate analysis initiative based at Oxford University. They have looked at the changed weather conditions that made the Australian fires of recent months so dramatically devastating, and have now issued a report concluding that the fires were made at least 30% more likely because of human-induced climate change. This contrasts sharply with the bland statements from Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who suggested the fires were simply ‘business as usual’, to say nothing of the extraordinary misinformation campaigns that even accused green activists of setting the fires.
Yet another group of experts has published a report on the effects on ocean levels caused by our melting ice-caps. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research combined 16 separate studies on the polar ice-sheets, especially on the loss of Antarctic ice, and drew conclusions about the range of possible consequences. The worst case, based on ‘business as usual’, would be over half a metre contributed by the Southern ice cap. That would translate into an overall global rise of about 1.5 metres by 2100. The lead author Anders Leverman warns of the immediate implication that the inevitable inundation of our coastal cities will happen much sooner than we may imagine.
An unexpected consequence of the warming of our oceans may be to drive yet more species to the brink of extinction. As humans (and mammals) we are used to the idea that the sex of our offspring is genetically determined at the moment of conception. But some fish species and many reptiles use different mechanisms. There are genetic factors but also the ambient temperature can be highly significant. For reptiles, such as crocodiles and turtles, the crucial times are during egg incubation; while for fish, the larval stage is most sensitive. The effects vary with the species, and while it may seem to be advantageous if ocean temperatures continue to rise as at present, 93% of green sea turtles could be female. For some fish species, the opposite effect applies and they could soon become predominantly male.
Bad news for bumblebees. A study conducted at University College London compared bee populations with rainfall and temperature records at more than 15,000 locations where sightings of the insects had been recorded, and found that the drop in the incidence of such sightings correlated closely with the climatic changes. Bumblebees are known to be one of the least able of insects to adapt to environmental changes.
Perhaps it is a little early to be drawing precise political lessons from the Covid crisis, but when the time comes there are two matters we might consider. The first would be a general observation of the fragility of our ‘free-market’ economy and its total inability to handle the extra demands placed on it in recent weeks. You only have to look at the effective nationalisation of the entire rail network and of the gig-economy, and the curious but not unrealistic expectation that private entrepreneurs have the right to expect the same financial safety net as everyone else. The second, and much more serious lesson that we can only hope our leaders will take on board is the absolute necessity of relying on the best scientific advice available. If the final analysis of the damage done by Covid concludes that listening to the scientists saved lives, then it can only be logical to expect politicians in future to listen to what global science is saying about the climate crisis.
Bryn Glover is a member of the AGS national committee